If you ask me what compelled me to ride 129 miles and climb over 15,000 feet all over five passes, I will answer you honestly: To prove to myself I could. Shortly after I bought my road bike, in April 2015, I was at a karaoke bar waiting on a few friends. While I was waiting for a table, I started talking to a group of cyclists. They told me they were training for something called ‘Death Ride.’ I was in awe. It was as if they were speaking in a language I couldn’t understand. I daydreamed how it would feel being a part of the pack that finished all five passes.
I did my triathlons I took some time off from my bike over the cold NorCal winter (something I am embarrassed to say, having been born and raised in the Midwest). By the time Death Ride sign ups posted online the furthest I had ridden was 50 miles, so I did what any adventurer new to cycling does, I signed up for one of the hardest rides in America.
Most people train for years before they attempt Death Ride. I had six months. (If you take nothing else away from this blog—do not—DO NOT—do what I did. I am so lucky I wasn’t hurt or even killed. This blog is not a training plan. It is my story and some tips for what to expect.) I had no technical experience. I had NEVER done anything that resembled real distance or climbing, and I had no training partners. I found a few experienced riders who took pity on me and eventually through coincidence started training with the SAME GROUP I had met in the karaoke bar right after I bought my bike.
To date, Death Ride is the hardest and most intense thing I have ever accomplished. It is the only event I honestly questioned if I could finish (due to time constraints). But I finished, and the moment I knew I was going to finish, I cried. I cried is not expressive enough. I was hysterical. Snot was dripping from my nose. I was heaving; people were asking me if I was okay. At the top of Carson, you are given a pin to show you completed all five passes. The man who pinned my jersey could tell this was my first time. I was full of pride. I was in an elite club.
People often ask if I will ever do Death Ride again, to which I respond, “I think I proved my point.”
Talk with an expert:
Rod Halbert is a Level 2 USA cycling coach and owns and operates Phoenix Cycling Systems with his wife, Kristy. Rod has participated in Death Ride fourteen times. “As hard as you train, you will never know how hard it is until you do Death Ride,” Rod said confidently as he sat in his cycling studio. His wife Kristy nodded as he continued, “It’s no joke. Everyone wants to quit their first time.”
Every year Rod leads a group of experienced riders and newbies alike on their common goal, to complete all five passes of Death Ride. When asked what is needed for the minimum training he said, “you need to be on a bike at least six to seven hours per week average for ten weeks. And at least two weeks before the event you need to do at least ¾ of the distance and ¾ of the climbing. You also need to know how the steepness feels.”
Rod said that descending is the most important skill and to know how to use your brakes. That is where people get hurt. “Learn to feather the brakes. Don’t overheat the wheels, overheating the wheels can puncture the tubes.” He suggests going to a skills clinic before Death Ride and to ride with someone who can coach you on a downhill. Rod takes safety and training very seriously. A few years ago, he witnessed the tragic death of a woman that crashed on the backside of Monitor. Last, year a friend was blown off his bike by the wind on Carson. He slid down on his back, losing skin and teeth. He was going 50 miles per hour. Rod says, “So with the wind and descending, just get with a coach that’s done it before to help you get downhill.”
Regarding fuel and hydration, Rod says not to eat to lose weight right before Death Ride. Eat healthy all week, get in lots of carbs and proteins. Rod personally loves Osmo preload the night before the ride and the next morning. Kristy reminded, not to try anything new the day of Death Ride. Training is where you want to try new supplements and gear.
When it comes to gear Rod couldn’t stress layers enough. He suggests a wind jacket, arm warmers and light items you can shed. “It is usually cold in the morning and at the tops. Then, you’ll sweat on the climbs,” he says. He went on to advise, “We never stop at the top, because you’re warm from the climb. So, if you stop, you get cold then you descend cold.”
Lastly, if you start to feel your mental motivation draining, ask yourself, ‘why are you here?’ and ‘why are you doing this?’ Usually, poor mental attitude comes into play because you are low on sugar or dehydrated. Stay ahead of your hunger and thirst. But remind yourself, you’ve made the decision to do it, and you’re already here. You might as well finish.’
Description of the event:
I was limited in my ability to train for Death Ride. I could only train every other weekend when I didn’t have my daughter. Even with hubris such as mine, I knew better than to ride on streets by myself. I was in a unique position. Most people who sign up for Death Ride are experienced riders. Experienced riders are too fast to ride with someone like me for distances of 100 miles. It takes me about 10 hours to do 100 miles. It takes them 5-7. People who are new to riding do not want to do distances that long. So, I went on Facebook, and I begged and pleaded to anyone who would take me out to ride distance and climbing until I found people to ride with me. I also signed up for a lot of organized rides. I did the Wildcat 125 (about 125 miles and 7700 feet of climbing). I did the Sierra Century which was 122 miles and 9600 feet of climbing, and I did Hell Hole. Hell Hole is 100 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing. It is arguably more challenging than Death Ride. After Hell Hole, any mental inclination that my body could not endure Death Ride had left me. The issue was the timing. I could climb, but I was still slow. Climbing and speed are different muscles; I only had time to focus on climbing. I carefully studied the elevation map in regards to my speed on similar rides. I allotted 5mph for uphill, 20 mph for downhill and 10 for the rare flat. To ensure I would finish on time I started at 4:30 am. Since Death Ride is a ride and not a race, you can start pretty much as early as you want. There were several people on the road at 4:30 am. I gave myself less than 5 minutes at rest stops, to account for how slow I ride.
The first climb was Monitor. With all my training and adrenaline, I took the first pass of Monitor down like it was my bitch. Sticker one. I finished the backside of Monitor with similar gusto. Sticker 2. I was warned Ebbets is the steepest and most challenging. I scoffed. I was on fire. Two stickers down and I was way ahead on time. I was making my way up Ebbets, actually thinking to myself, “Death Ride is sooo overrated.” Then Ebbets hit me in the face and let me know I was an idiot for underestimating her. After a false show of ease, Ebbets suddenly looked vertical. I was looking straight up at the path I needed to take. I held my composure for a few miles but the pain set in. I take a supplement to help ease leg cramps, but no pill was strong enough to override this level of intensity. I made it up and over Ebbets. My most frightening moment downhill was as I was passing a rider who was on my right I heard a woman out of control frantically yelling at me to go right. I couldn’t go right; it was packed with other riders. She couldn’t go left as it was filled with riders coming uphill. The uphill riders saw her peril and made room for her to come into their lane— but my takeaway is don’t get too full of yourself and go so fast that you put other riders at risk. The uphill on the back face of Ebbets is where I started to break down. I was slowing down and losing time. Also, the ache of so much steep uphill was hitting me hard. I started crying from the pain.
After Ebbets, I ate lunch. I rushed through the meal, as I had a large climb and with my slow speed I knew I needed to get going. I began the stretch that was the most mentally draining, the straightaway past my car. For me, endurance is more mental than physical. I know my brain will quit on me long before my body. At that moment, my brain almost gave out. I looked at the parking lot that held my car, and I said to myself, “Breathe and move forward and you will have no choice but to finish.” I knew myself well enough to know that I would not recover emotionally from the failure of a DNF. I set out to complete five passes, and I was going to finish five passes.
I pushed forward towards my last ascend, about 20 miles up. It is 10 miles uphill just to get to the 10-mile climb that is Carson. I had been riding since 4:30 am. My only focus was moving. I stopped at the last rest stop on this stretch to grab some more fuel. I attempted to clip back in and get going, but my legs were so weak that I physically couldn’t get the momentum to push forward on my bike. At this point, another rider saw my failed attempts, like a baby deer trying to walk, my legs did not have the strength to push off. He came over to me and held my bike upright and gave me a soft push. I gave a thank you wave, too scared to gesture too much as I might fall over.
The final climb up Carson was mentally brutal as I had convinced myself I was running behind schedule and might not make the cutoff time. A rider I didn’t know rode up next to me and was sporting a jersey from the Phoenix group (Rod’s cycling team) that allowed me to train with them. I called him out, and he saw the distress on my face. He took pity on me and motivated me the entire way up that hill. He told me about his previous experiences doing Death Ride, he told me about his wife and kids and helped me focus on anything but quitting.
As I turned the corner and saw the tent, I knew I was there. Everyone who told me I was ‘crazy’ for doing this, the people who supported me, wouldn’t me let down. The emotions mixed with the exhaustion and hysterical tears of joy poured from my body. I clocked a finish time of 6:36 pm. Fourteen hours later. The final descent back to my car was grueling but filled with elation. That night I slept very well.
Questions to ask yourself:
-How many passes are you setting out to complete? Not everyone does Death Ride with the intentions to complete all five passes. A friend of mine set out just to do the front faces of all three mountains; others just do monitor. Remember, for Death Ride, there are two different jerseys, the Death Ride jersey any participant of the ride can purchase and then there is the five-pass finisher jersey. You cannot order the five pass jersey until after the ride. You must obtain a sticker at all five stations after the completion of a pass. Then, you either order your jersey at the end of the race or you mail in a photocopy of your bib with all the stickers. 3,290 people signed up for Death Ride in 2016, 1,556 completed all five passes. Of the total number of riders, only 372 were women, 207 of which completed five passes. These statistics aren’t meant to intimidate, just to make you aware of the level of commitment this ride entails.
-How much time do you have to invest in training? Never ride on the streets without experience. Never ride on the streets alone, always ride in a pack. The best place to find Death Ride training groups is online through meetup.com or your local bike shop. If you can’t find a training group then sign up for organized rides. I did the Sierra Century, Chico Wildflower and Hell Hole. I also did the Alta Alpina.
-How does your body respond to various fuel and hydration plans? Fuel and hydration needs are different for everyone. You will need to find what works best for your body. I start carb loading about four days before an event like this and also hydrating with electrolytes four days prior as well. I make sure I am peeing clear and that my carb stores are full. Not everyone responds to this plan. I hear some people say carb loading weighs them down or simply does not work for them. A coach or trainer that specializes in endurance cycling can help you come up with a program to meet your needs.
What do you need:
-Fuel, water. I ran out of water part way through luckily another rider filled me up from his spare bottle. That was stupid on my part. Don’t make my mistakes. You will need a fuel plan. Don’t try new supplements or foods the day of the ride. Be sure that if you are going to experiment you do it during training. 129 miles is a long way to realize you ate something that doesn’t agree with you.
– Gloves-your hands will be a wreck without them.
-Lights- if you start early in the dark these are a necessity. It also makes you more visible to cars.
– Sunglasses (prescription if needed), sunscreen.
– Layers are essential. I started out freezing and ended sweating. Be sure you take into account the weather can change drastically.
-Helmet-you will be laughed out of the event before you even begin if you attempt this without a helmet.
-Training- Lots of training. Do you know how to descend in the rain or high winds? Are you able to ride in a group with lots of other riders? A coach is an excellent resource and highly recommended. If you do not have a coach, you will need a mentor or experienced riding group to guide you through safe riding.
Death Ride is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I take immense pride in having completed something so difficult. If Death Ride is on your bucket list, remember what I told you, “breathe and move forward and you will have no choice but to finish.”